Tory policies – on social security, on tax, on public service spending cuts, on the NHS, on education, on housing, on immigration, on virtually any aspect of domestic social policy you care to think of – are explicitly divisive. This is matter not just of ideology but of politics: playing to a narrative that Labour can’t be trusted to be tough enough. But the lesson for Labour can’t be to out-tough the Tories, and there’s no evidence that it would work if we did: Labour significantly tightened benefits conditionality between 1997 and 2010, yet public scepticism about the benefits system grew.
So a different approach is needed, one that is in line with Labour values, yet understanding and responding to the underlying drivers of public concern.
Of course, we have to acknowledge that one consequence of austerity has been to harden public attitudes further, as the British Social Attitudes survey shows. But understanding the complexity of public opinion is important, as is being clear about what we believe.
Public opinion is more nuanced that social attitudes research might suggest. Last year, in a pamphlet for the Fabians, I acknowledged public concern that the social security system apparently allows people to claim benefits when they ought to be in work. YouGov polling had found that around two thirds of people believe that a substantial minority of benefit claimants ‘lie about their circumstances in order to obtain higher welfare benefits.’ These estimates are clearly inaccurate – as recent research for the TUC has shown. But perceptions about the level of ‘scrounging’ may lead to the high levels of public support that exist for cutting benefits to unemployed people or single mothers.
Yet when it comes to other groups, support for cutting benefits is weak. Only 11% think that Disability Living Allowance should be cut, and there are “minorities ranging from 9% to 23% in favour of cutting pensioners’ benefits, benefits to the low paid, and child benefit for families paying standard rate income tax.” Public attitudes look remarkably in line with the mantra “work for those who can, security for those who can’t”, which proved a winning combination for Labour in 1997. There’s no reason to think that, if the public believed that Labour would deliver it, it would be any different today. Nor is there any reason to argue that those core Labour values are outmoded or have changed.
What’s more, there is mounting evidence that when we demonstrate a clarity of purpose that’s rooted in our values, we receive a favourable public response. When Ed Miliband committed Labour to oppose the government’s 1% cap on benefits uprating, it was foursquare with Labour values of protecting the poorest and making work pay. The government was surprised to find that public opinion took Labour’s stance rather well. A similar effect was observed in the public response to George Osborne’s ill-judged remarks on Mick Philpott. A strong rebuttal from Ed Balls was positively received by the public.
So the evidence is that progressive, radical, positions, which balance rights and responsibilities, are in line with where the public’s at. That is where we should develop our policies, and our conversation with the electorate. Job guarantees, a greater role for contribution in the social security system, and reducing inequality are the right building blocks, and they’re what matter to the public. More ambitious and bolder polices – full employment, investment in job quality, and benefits that deliver adequate social protection – are the next step in convincing the electorate, and the best, sustainable route to economic success.
 British Social Attitudes 29 www.bsa-29.natcen.ac.uk
 Labour’s Next Majority Fabian Society (2012)
 YouGov research for TUC December 2012
 Declan Gaffney (2011) ‘The benefits people want to save are the ones the Tories want to cut’